Socialist Worker

Embryonic bigotry

Right wing lobbyists are opposing research into new fertility treatments with false notions of what is "natural", writes John Parrington

Issue No. 2097

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which is due to be debated in the House of Commons in May, is proving to be highly controversial.

Gordon Brown last month caved in to pressure to grant Labour MPs a free vote on the bill after several cabinet ministers threatened to resign over the issue.

Much of the controversy has focused on the proposal to allow creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for research into how stem cells might be used to treat disease (see Socialist Worker, 29 March).

But other aspects of the bill, for instance the plan to allow lesbian couples and single women to have equal access to fertility treatment, are also upsetting some right wing bigots and lobbyists.

Even more controversial is a proposal to allow women or men who are infertile to conceive using “artificial” sperm and eggs.

Recent studies using mice showed that embryonic stem cells could be turned into sperm-like cells that were successfully used to fertilise an egg and thus create a living animal.

Artificial sperm and eggs have since been generated from stem cells present in human bone marrow.

This opens up the possibility that some infertile men or women would be able to have children via this alternative route.

It could also potentially allow two gay men, or two lesbians, to have children that are biologically related to both parents.

It seems to be this that has most infuriated right wing lobbyists and a number of leading Catholic clergy.

They have also claimed that the technology could give rise to a situation where someone could be both biological mother and father of a child – which one commentator has called the “ultimate incest”.

But surely these technologies should be judged by their capacity to help or harm people – not by right wing ideas of what is “natural” or “unnatural”.

Ironically, the three cabinet ministers who threatened to resign over the bill all supported the Iraq war – which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

In contrast new technologies that permit infertile couples to conceive could bring great happiness.

Infertility currently affects around one in nine couples in Britain.

Since the birth of the first “test tube baby” Louise Brown in 1978, advances in science have meant that people whose sperm and eggs do not function in the normal way have been able to conceive.

However, some infertile individuals fail to produce any sperm or eggs at all, or have had them destroyed as a side effect of cancer chemotherapy. It is these people who could benefit from artificial sperm or eggs.

Similarly, if gay or lesbian couples want to have children that are biologically related to each partner, why should they not be allowed to do so?

More problematic uses of the technology, for instance allowing a single individual to be both father and mother of a child, could be made illegal – just as incest already is – if only on the grounds that the product of such a union would be severely inbred, and therefore highly susceptible to genetic disease.

In fact it still remains to be demonstrated that this new technology can be safely used for human reproductive purposes.

A lot more research needs to be done to improve the technology before we can be sure that it is safe to use for infertility treatment.

At the very least, such research should provide important information about the processes by which sperm and eggs develop, and thus help to design new drugs that can be used to treat infertility or act as contraceptives.

Of course we might question why so many people feel the need to have their own genetically related offspring.

In other human societies it seems to be much less of a natural urge.

In the traditional Polynesian island cultures of the South Pacific, for example, there is much less sense of ownership of children, and a baby may even be promised to a neighbour during pregnancy.

It may be that the atomised society of modern capitalism fuels the desire to have a biologically related child.

But we should not underestimate the distress caused by infertility.

For many people in our society being infertile can be as psychologically damaging as having a life-threatening illness.

This is why the development of new technologies to combat infertility deserves support.

It is a scandal that while billions of pounds have been spent on death and destruction in Iraq, proper fertility treatment is not freely available on the NHS.

Dr John Parrington carries out research at the University of Oxford into the mechanisms of fertilisation and embryo development


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

News
Tue 15 Apr 2008, 19:24 BST
Issue No. 2097
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.